Alex Stupak is the James Beard-nominated chef and owner of Empellón Cocina and Empellón Taqueria in New York City. Before opening his own restaurants, he garnered national acclaim for his work as a pastry chef at Alinea and wd~50. This is his third article for First We Feast; read his thoughts on chef collaborations, as well as the story behind Empellón’s flour tortillas.
I was asked the question recently by a friend: “Where does the instinct to expand come from?”
The question may have come at just the right time, because I have been getting the itch for a third venture. The difference is, I have much more pause in my heart this time around.
When I opened Taqueria I was told many times, by several different people, that I was not going to succeed. So much so that once the restaurant just barely started to click I became compelled to extend the biggest middle finger I possibly could to all those naysayers. That middle finger was Cocina.
In retrospect my catalyst for initial expansion was the wrong one. I don’t regret opening my second place one bit, but I’ve decided that showing people that something can be done is not reason enough to do it. We’ve been retroactively fixing things due to brashness and lack of planning since the start.
After giving this some thought, I’ve decided that for me personally, there are four reasons to expand, and going forward all four of them have to be in front of me if I am even going to consider it.
1. Building and Holding a Team
You need to expand in order to grow a great team, and you need a great team in order to expand.
If you have a restaurant and you are lucky, sometimes you will hit a sweet spot where you have a grip of talented up-and-comers all at the same time. When this happens it can be a reason to expand, because great teams are very hard to come by and talented people will not remain dedicated to you forever unless you can provide consistent opportunity for growth.
If you have one restaurant with a bad-ass chef de cuisine as well as a bad-ass sous chef, I can promise you that your sous chef is quietly waiting for your chef de cuisine to quit or die so that he or she can step up.
By opening another restaurant you have a much better shot of keeping your talent on board because you have more places to put your good people.
The team is everything. Without a great team in place, nothing meaningful can ever be achieved. If a restaurant is like a child, then the team is the village it takes to raise it properly.
2. Creating a Container to Hold New Ideas
From my experience, once a restaurant is known for a certain set of dishes your customers are going to demand them. If you’re the artistic type who likes to replace things as soon as they have caught on, you’re going to struggle with yourself internally.
People are usually happy to see new menu items at their favorite restaurants, but not if they have replaced one of this dishes that they get every single time they go there. Once your menu has reached critical mass you see that there is not much more to do except hone and refine the repetition.
It’s very difficult and arguably destructive to change the concept and direction of a restaurant. It’s like flying an airplane that you are never allowed to land and having someone crawl out onto the wings to try and paint it a different color.
If I want to start cooking only Oaxacan dishes, or even if I want to put pistachios in several things other than guacamole…. Well, it’s time to start developing a new concept.
3. Remaining a Part of the Dialogue
In New York City there seems to be a new hot restaurant opening about every six seconds. Some are being opened by quintessential NYC chefs who have had plenty of time to get their game tight. Some are being opened by international bad asses with massive infrastructures.
Once fall rolls around you start reading about all the new and most anticipated openings. When you aren’t a part of that it can leave a knot in your stomach. It’s scary how competitive the game of staying relevant is.
A big part of it is making sure that you are trying to make the customers you already have a little bit happier every single day. Another big part of it can be trying to cast out a wider net. The more restaurants you have, the more seats you have, and with more seats you have more opportunities to make an impression on people and hopefully rent space in their brain.
There is a flip side to this, which is that if you spread yourself too thin you are actually going to make a poor impression on more people and wreck everything. I think this is why points 1 and 2 above have to be in place.
4. Earning a Living
Everyone seems to think that once you have your own restaurant you become richer. Maybe some do, but for myself and all of my friends in the game, it seems that you actually become poorer than you already were.
A financially well-run restaurant that sells out every night can pretty much only hope to keep 20 cents on every dollar it makes. Statistically, most only keep between 9 and 15 cents. Some places jump for joy when they break even.
Now take that 20 cents and divide it amongst your business partners and investors, but only after you’ve paid back the initial cost to open the place, plus interest!
On top of all that, if you’re responsible then you are taking that money and putting it right back into the business for dining room refurbishments, new kitchen equipment, etc.
It’s difficult to make a living in the restaurant game. Maybe if you open five places and pay them all off in ten years you can afford to send just one of your unborn children to college.
So those are all the things I’m currently thinking about while contemplating whether or not I’m going to open up a third restaurant. Please take everything I’ve said with a grain of salt. Everyone’s journey is different and I have no fucking clue about what I’m doing.